Political Issues and Debates

Broader conceptual or epistemological issues that have have political implications.

WHITENESS AT WORK FORMULATION

Support for people experiencing racism at work

When working with people experiencing racism at work, I have been frustrated that no formulation model centred on whiteness related violence, exists. Part of my clinical work has involved supporting people in racially oppressive/toxic work environments and as such, I have had to try to develop some tools to help ensure their lived experience of racism was validated and centred in the therapeutic conversation; so that a sense of agency and mastery could be fostered.

I have learnt that experiences of racism at work usually revolve around a main trope/story. The story often sounds like ‘one of these stories’ you have heard many times before and, will likely have a firm déjà vu quality. One might in fact, have heard the story so often, that they become incredulous it is actually happening to them. Many start to doubt their experience. If racism is not externalised, confidence and self-esteem can be significantly hit and, more serious psychological distress may ensue.

The whiteness at work formulation: rationale

The whiteness at work formulation is a basic tool anyone experiencing racism at work may use. It is questions based and, designed to be simple and accessible. The aims of the tool are to:

1) Derive meaning from racially oppressive situations by making connections, links and seeing patterns. Formulating and conceptualisating racism/oppression is one of the most powerful methods to retain a sense of agency and power when we experience racism.

2) Promote some psychological distance and increase our capacity to see the situation in its entirety/from above thus, helping us strategise. Racism is a significant stressor. When under stress, our capacity to plan, think clearly and problem solve is often significantly impaired. Taking a meta-cognitive or helicopter view of the situation can help us problem solve more effectively and, stops us from becoming too emotionally embroiled as this also increases the likelihood of psychological injury/trauma. 

3) Externalise the problem. There are strong structural (and ego centred) drivers that promote victim-blaming in situations of abuse of power. Further, experiences of racism can quickly hook onto past trauma/abuse and/or psychological ‘vulnerabilities’ increasing their wounding potential. Our best defence here is to externalise. 

A basic formulation may thus be useful when both navigating and making sense of whiteness at work. The framework is not designed to promote any particular course of action but, aims to encourage reflection and self-care. 

You choose your strategies. 

The tool may be useful to both those affected by racism and those working to support victims/targets.

The framework: basic questions

1. What is the main narrative/discourse?
Ask yourself…
What is going on here that sounds typical/predictable?
What is causing me distress/discomfort?
(trust your experience)
What seems beyond the individuals concerned?

2. How is whiteness being reproduced here?
Ask yourself…
What tropes can I recognise?
What stereotypes are being used?
What structural inequalities are engaged/perpetuated?

3. Who are the agents of whiteness?
Ask yourself…
Who is actively reproducing whiteness?
Who is passively/inadvertently reproducing whiteness?
Are there any agents that may be/appear unwilling? (consider using them in question 5)

4. Tactics/devices in use
Ask yourself…
What devices are being used to exclude/Other?
What is/are the function(s) of those tactics/devices?
What is the impact of any tactic used (on me and on others)?

5. Navigational and resistance strategies
Ask yourself…
In relation to the functions(s) of the devices in use, what strategies are available to me to buffer/counteract?
What support is available to me – internally and externally?
What/who do I already know, that I could summon to help me navigate here?  

You may want to organise this information in a table. I will aim to produce a diagram (psychologists love diagrams).

Reflect on your answers.

Discuss them with others you trust and more importantly, derive a plan of action based on what you want to achieve in your current situation and, the support you have.

Remember white supremacy is beyond you and it is beyond me too.

Look after yourself.

Experiencing racism or racial injustice is no reflection on your character or lack of skills/talents.

Feel free to pass this post around 🙂 

Happy resisting!

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A reflective group for people facing racism and race related challenges at work

Why this group?

Few spaces exist where we can reflect on race related challenges and on experiences of racism many of us face at work. Yet, such the experiences can deeply affect our psychological well-being and career trajectories. This group has been set-up to help fill this gap. 

What are the aims of the group?

The group has the following aims:

  1. To aid the formulation of racism related challenges in the workplace using psychological theory
  2. To increase our repertoire of navigational, resistance and/or coping strategies 
  3. To promote our well-being, self-care and psychological resilience at work  

Who is the group for? 

This group is for anyone experiencing racism, or race related challenges at work. There are no additional criteria. 

When is the group meeting?

The group will generally meet fortnightly on a Friday evening from 17h30 to 19h30. The date for the first meeting has now been set-up for Friday May 25. 

How long will the group meet?

This group as a pilot, is intended to last until December 2018. 

What is the duration of each meeting? 

Each group meeting will last 2 hours. 

What is the group format?                    

There is no set structure as of yet.  Nonetheless, the group will meet fortnightly for 2 hours. Terms of reference and ‘ground rules’ will be agreed with members in the first meeting as will the eventual structure. 

Who will facilitate/conduct the group?

I will be facilitating/conducting the group but I hope that the space itself and the presence of others in the group, will be similarly supportive. 

Where will the meetings take place?

The meetings are scheduled to take place in London Euston at the Marchmont Community Centre which is at 62 Marchmont Street, London WC1N 1AB. Please note, the venue is subject to change

What if I am not sure I can attend every meeting or I am not sure I am suitable? 

Please contact me and we can have a chat.

Is there a cost?
                                                                               At present it is likely that there will be a small fee (£10.00 per group) but, as the group is being carried out as part of my clinical psychology doctorate, this is to cover costs.  If meeting the fee proves difficult for you, please contact me. Payments will be expected on the day of the meeting, before the meeting. 

Are places limited? 
                                                                           Yes. Places are limited to 15 people maximum. They will be allocated on a first come, first served basis and, a waiting list may be held. 

How can I join/find out more?

To manifest your interest please email me with either your Skype ID or a mobile number (bookings.selfcare@gmail.com) so we can arrange a brief chat. You can also contact me on Twitter @Kguilaine.

I will arrange a chat with everyone one wishing to join.

Thank you.

Silencing, trauma and whiteness

‘I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the clear majority who refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us […] your voice is snatched away
(Eddo-Lodge, 2017)

As a black woman, I have recurrently found myself in situations where as the only person of colour, speaking of my experience of the world led to hostility; occasionally to violence; more frequently, to disorientating silencing attempts. Often, this silencing has felt more distressing than the discriminatory acts I was trying to share. Similarly, in therapy  people  of colour have approached me, ashamed, often terrified; describing what seems like a wall of impenetrable defensiveness bolstered by gagging manoeuvres; their voices meet when articulating racism. Eddo-Lodge (2017) captures something of this collective experience. My resolve here is to avoid reproducing this silence and, to aid its psychological understanding. Using the concept of the social uncounscious (Foulkes, 1948); I posit this: 1) the social unconscious is a major vehicle for this silencing, 2) that silencing is a remnant of intergenerational racial trauma and 3) that silencing both reproduces and is borne out of historical power configurations.

The social uncounscious 

The social unconscious at its most fundamental, refers to internalised social configurations and; to the properties of the social world that evade our conscious awareness (Hopper, 2003). It essentially posits that our behaviour is not only shaped by unconscious drives in the Freudian sense, but that interpersonal and social forces equally exert powerful influence; this notion is central to Foulkes’ thesis (Hopper and Weinberg, 2011; Dalal, 2003) and the discipline of group analysis.

Despite emphasising that groups lend themselves particularly well to the exploration of the social unconscious, Foulkes (whom the concept is usually attributed to) did not theorise it much beyond this, nor did he provide guidance on how the concept may be employed to formulate group relations and processes in society or therapy (Hopper and Weinberg, 2011).

Others have provided further elaboration. Hopper (2003) posits that the social unconscious is central to the formation of the collective identity of societies and other social systems. Weinberg (2008: 150) conceptualises it as ‘the co-constructed shared unconscious of members of a particular social system such as community, society, nation or culture’. Of particular note, Nitzgen (2002) proposes that the social unconscious offers a tool to consider collective defences against shared anxieties that have been caused by historical trauma.

Trauma and its transmission

The American Psychological Association (APA), defines trauma as:

‘An emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms…’ APA (2018)

The above definition focuses on individualised trauma responses and is thus of limited use to consider collective trauma. Definitions of historical trauma (or of inter/trans-generational trauma — terms  used interchangeably) address these limitations. One such definition sees historical trauma as ‘the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma’ Brave Heart (1999).

This definition though is not without problems for example, how should ‘massive group trauma’ be operationalised? And, is it even a necessary or desirable criterion? Still, it is much more useful to the study of social groups and of culture as it highlights the intergenerational transmission potential of trauma and; its collective consequences.

Integenerational trauma

Empirical evidence suggests that trauma may be passed down generations not only epigenetically (Kellermann, 2013) but also through unconscious mechanisms. Ritter (2014), in her investigation of the phenomenon in Holocaust survivors; found that projective identification was a core mechanism by which trauma was transmitted; parents often projected Holocaust-related feelings and anxieties into children which became introjected and, led to children behaving as though they had themselves experienced concentration camps.

Contrary to Eurocentric notions of individualism, human beings and groups  may continue to be shaped by phenomena and experiences distant by time and place. The social unconscious allows us to make sense of this transmission. Indeed, the role of history in the structuring of the social world and, in the transmission of trauma has long been recognised (Stobo, 2005).

The social unconscious and intergenerational racial trauma

Stobo (2005) proposes that silence serves to regulate and maintain a psychic equilibrium and; that the space between black and white people holds the fear of something which cannot be spoken. Specifically, shared histories of imperialism, colonialism and enslavement. She suggests that what is feared and difficult to articulate interpersonally, is a discovery or acknowledgement of racism. This unexpressed conflict manifests as disturbance which is located within people of colour in whom difference is fixed.

One way to develop her thesis is to shift the focus from difficulty with articulation, to group difficulties with hearing thus containing and; link these to an intersubjective intergenerational trauma framework. Something I have repeatedly attempted to do. Our attention in relation to intergenerational trauma, often exclusively focuses on the victims of atrocities and their descendants. For example, Alleyne (2004) posits the existence of an ‘internal oppressor’ in black people, a post-traumatic ‘syndrome’ centred on the activation of memory imprints from the legacy of our painful historical past, re-opened in the present, with the occurrence of oppression.

Similarly, Fletchman-Smith (2011) has highlighted how particular cruelties central to slavery such as separating infants from their mothers and; loving parents from one another, continue to affect attachment (and Oedipal patterns) in people of Caribbean backgrounds. Nevertheless, trauma simply did not end at the boundaries of slaves’ quarters. Nor does it remain neatly confined within former colonies/colonial subjects or their descendants. Terror has historically existed on both sides of the power divide. Writing so by no means implies equivalence in suffering.

It is a fact that slave masters were terrorised of slaves. Similarly, the collapse of Apartheid led to collective phobias of retaliatory genocide in white groups. These anxieties continue to reverberate today. Of particular relevance here, some evidence suggests that those who commit violent crimes have a much higher incidence of ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (PTSD) irrespective of trauma histories prior to offending (Crisford, Dare & Evangeli, 2008). In other words, subjecting others to trauma often traumatises.

Silence and power

Silence is often denial. It is the wilful or unconscious desire to avoid distressing material. Denial is a common psychological defense against trauma. And, like many responses to trauma, it is not limited to individual survivors; their family members or to direct witnesses. Social/cultural groups also share trauma and cultural wounds; those are believed to form the building blocks of the social unconscious (Volkan, 2001).

Evidence of racial denial at societal level may be found in the abysmal success rates of race discrimination complaints in court and in other public institutions (Renter, 2003) and/or in the discursive devices used to describe those who speak of racism e.g. having a chip on the shoulder, playing the race card. Shame is employed to force people of colour into silence. Silencing is thus a potent form of social control.

Silencing serves the avoidance of shame-based feelings in the racially dominant group which are projected onto people of colour who may introject them. It is no coincidence, that it is through shaming that silencing often operates. But, if what human beings struggle to contain of their experience; what is overwhelming, unbearable, unthinkable, falls out of social discourses to burden next generations (Fromm; 2014), silencing through interpersonal or discursive means, may well foster the transmission of intergenerational or historical racial trauma.

Silencing as historical reproduction

When people of colour are silenced; echoes of the past loom very near. Colonial systems and arrangements resound. Strongly. Contemporary reactions and interactions operate at differing levels of consciousness and; are often rooted in the social unconscious (Stobo; 2005).

Legacies evoked here include the belief that black pain is non-existent or inconsequential; the social expectation that black people must show white people socio-economic and thus psychological servitude; that we must centre white feelings/experience or protect white people’s psychological comfort (DiAngelo, 2001). Ultimately historical sacrificial demands are placed upon the black body, all over again.

Individuals tend to recreate past situations, particularly those within which they have been traumatised. Social groups are equally compelled to unconsciously transfer past social configurations onto present situations and thus create equivalences — group transferences (Hopper, 2003). Silencing it is thus proposed, recreate our oppressive, colonial and imperial history.

Concluding thoughts

Racial silencing, both originates from and, transmits whiteness related trauma. The distress black people (or indeed people of colour) feel when shut down, may not simply come about because white individuals unconsciously (or otherwise) compelled to demand silence, represent or even embody figures from our personal, proximal past. Perhaps too, silencing and responses to it, betray identification with the original silencer/coloniser and/or silenced/colonised and thus; the reproduction or co-reconstruction of this shared intersubjective traumatic history.

If so, relevant social configurations, may not only reignite past cultural or historical wounds and their corresponding affective states or motives; believed to be buried in the social unconscious (Volkan, 2001), they may well recreate a more distal and brutal past, which may become acted out and re-enacted, interpersonally and socially.

Silencing as a discursive act links the (social) unconscious to the socio-political. If the ultimate power is the power to define; silencing  does not only strip us of our voice; it strips us of power and; thus keeps us in subservience. Silencing consequently, may not only harm specific individuals, but entire social/marginalised groups by reproducing the unequal social order psychologically, epistemically and thus structurally and…by helping ensure, history simply never becomes history.

Thank you for reading.

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References:

Alleyne, A. (2004). Black identity and workplace oppression. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 4 (1): 4–8.

American Psychological Association (2018). Trauma. Available from: http://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/ [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Brave Heart, M.Y.H. (1999). Gender differences in the historical trauma response among the Lakota. Journal of Health and Social Policy, 10 (4):1-21.

Crisford, H., Dare, H., & Evangeli, M. (2008). Offence-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptomatology and guilt in mentally disordered violent and sexual offenders. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 19(1), 86-107.

DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) pp 54-70.

Eddo-Lodge (2017). Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. London: Bloomsberg.

Foulkes, S. H. (1948). Introduction to Group Analytic Psychotherapy, London: Karnac.

Fletchman Smith (2011). Transcending the Legacies of Slavery: A Psychoanalytic View. Karnac: London.

Fromm, E. (2014). Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations. Karnac: London.

Hopper, E. (2003). The Social Unconscious: Selected Papers. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Hopper, E., & Weinberg, H. (Eds.) (2011). The Social Unconscious in Persons, Groups, and Societies. Volume 1: Mainly Theory. Karnac: London.

Kellermann (2013). Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust trauma: can nightmares be inherited? Isr J Psychiatry Relation Sci. 50 (1): 33-9.

Nitzgen, (2002). From Context to Content: Retrieving the Social in Group Analytic Practice. Group Analysis 35(3): 411-423.

Renton, D. 24 January 2013. Culture of disbelief? Why race discrimination claims fail in the Employment Tribunal. Available from; http://www.irr.org.uk/news/culture-of-disbelief-why-race-discrimination-claims-fail-in-the-employment-tribunal/ [Accessed 10 March 2018].

Ritter (2014). Silence as the Voice of Trauma. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74 (2): 176–194.

Stobo, B. (2005). Location of disturbance with a focus on race, difference and culture. Dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the Masters in Group Analysis, Birkbeck College: London.

Volkan, V.D. (2001). Transgenerational transmissions and chosen traumas: An aspect of large-group identity. Group Analysis, 34: 79-97.

Self-care as Resistance for Black women: Learning, healing, organising.


                                                       On 24 FEBRUARY 2018, London E3                                                   09h00-16h30

What can we practically do to help safeguard our emotional wellbeing?                                     What actions can we take individually and collectively, to support the wellbeing of our loved ones and community?                                                                                                           How do you even begin to practise self-care when you are facing bullying, discrimination and/or harassment at work?                                                                                                                How can we cope with so much systemic and geopolitical violence and, should we?

These are some of the questions many of us grapple with…

As Black women and femmes; there are few opportunities that exist where we can ask them openly, where we can come together, learn from one another and discuss oppression related distress and stress. Yet, there is no doubt that experiencing misogynoir, institutional racism, everyday injustice, micro and macro-aggressions; can have a deep impact on our wellbeing and sense of safety in the world.

‘Self-care as resistance’ is a programme designed to start a conversation centred on our wellbeing and wellness. This event which is the first in the series is specifically for Black women and femmes and non-binary black people. It will offer an opportunity to examine our socio-political reality, its related traumas and their impact on us. ‘Self-care as resistance’ has a strong practical focus. There will be several opportunities to practise self-care using evidence based and culturally adapted models. There will also be the chance to seek collective support, to share and to draw from the experience of others in navigating oppression.

The programme* will include:

PROGRAMME

09h00-09h30 Registration  

09h30-09h40 Welcome and experiencing silence together

09h40-10h00 Introductions & Saying Hello

10h00-10h30 Healing Words by Hodan Yusuf

10h30-11h15 Hoes does the law see me and what can I do? The legal visibility of Black women, intersectionality and the law: an interactive presentation by Kemi Labinjo

11h15-11h30 Break

11h30-12h00 Behavioural activation, why experiencing joy & pleasure matters: Guilaine Kinouani

12h00-12h30 Self-care, religion and spirituality: Samara Linton

12h30-13h00 Lunch and networking

13h00-13h30 Lifting for wellness and healing: A personal testimony by Andrea Corbett

13h30-14h00 Healing Words by Siana Bangura

14h00-14h15 Break 

 14h15-14h45 Self-compassion & Blackness Centred Self-compassion: self-kindness as a revolutionary act Guilaine Kinouani 

14h45-15h30 Strategies for managing oppression at work: collective reflections 15h30-16h15 A panel on Black Excellence: Oppression or liberation?

16h15-16h30 Close and Saying goodbye

Panel members to include:

Kiri Kankhwende; journalist,TEDx speaker and political commentator.

Marsha Gosho-Oakes; writer & Founder of Soul Culture.

Marai Larasi is a Black Feminist Activist and executive director of Imkaan; a UK-based, black feminist organisation and the only national second-tier women’s organisation dedicated to addressing violence against Black and ‘Minority Ethnic’ (BME) women and girls.

The brochure can now be downloaded here (please note it is still subject to change).

Who is the event for?                                                                                                                   

For the February event; we are inviting Cis Black women, Trans Black women and Femmes and non-binary Black people to attend. The next event, planned for April 2018 will be open to ALL Women (and non binary people) of colour.

The Venue

The event will take place at We Heart Mondays; Dace Road, Tower Hamlet E3.

We Heart Mondays is a generous collective of influential women committed to supporting other …influential women; by providing them with (beautiful) physical & efficient virtual spaces together with a range of services to help them grow their venture.



Tickets                                                                                                                                                 

The cost of a place for the whole day has NOW been reduced to £20.00 (due to generous donations).

If you can pay more than £20.00 we would greatly appreciate. The excess will go towards funding places for those who may struggle financially.

We are continuing to raise funds to help with travelling and to support those who cannot afford to pay the full fee but; could benefit from attending.

If you cannot afford to pay or would struggle with travelling costs; please get in touch via email bookings.selfcare@gmail.com; we will try to help. We have several FREE places! Please claim them and help spread the word.

Catering    

Light snacks and finger food will be provided.

Accessibility      

Unfortunately the venue; kindly provided to us at no cost courtesy of We Heart Mondays; is not fully accessible for wheelchair users. Please contact us for additional information about access and ways in which we may assist.

BOOKING A PLACE

To book a place, please make your payment via PayPal: paypal.me/guilainekinouani, indicating as a reference your first initial and surname (e.g. B Knowles).
We will confirm that your place has been booked shortly after payment has been made.

If you wish to request a FREE place, please email bookings.selfcare@gmail.com.

If you do not wish to take part; but simply wish to donate (thank you), do use the PayPal account above (paypal.me/guilainekinouani). Please note, places are likely to go fast and will be allocated on a first come first served basis.

*The Final Programme will be available to download shortly from here.

When the dead speak

When my eldest son was about 6; he wrote a poem at school he entitled sadness; which eventually got published. I am reproducing it here, with his permission.

Sadness

It feels like pain
And it sounds like rain
And it reminds me of my mum’s dad who died
It smells like blood
And it tastes like blood
The colour is red

When he returned home on the day he wrote Sadness; elated and proud it had been selected for publication; I had to contain tears and shock. I instantly felt something significant was making itself manifest. I was not sure how to formulate. I can’t remember wether I cried or not in front of him but I know I cried, away from him.

My son was happy. Pretty much had always been. The sadness was not his. The connection between the imagery of violence, my father and loss clearly evaded him. Like a messenger, delivering a sealed parcel.

My father died about a decade before my son was born. My son had not known him. In fact, they had not known one another. I have not known much of my father either. Through the poem we were reconnected. Every family observes silences over certain events or experiences. Divorce in African families is something that often attracts silence.

And so, I had never discussed my feelings with my son about my father’s passing. I had never discussed the circumstances of his death either.

No one had.

Silence was observed almost religiously around this too. Collectively. When my son asked about my father, I simply said that he had been unwell and had died long ago. As he grew up, I was able to say, his biological maternal grandfather, had died of a stroke and to explain to him what a stroke was. Which is true. But it is only partly true.

He never asked more searching questions, perhaps he had picked up on the rule of silence.

My father did die of the complications of a stroke. That’s the ‘he was unwell’ part. Nonetheless; he sustained the stroke during war. There was blood around him. There was mass murder. And likely too, there was the smell and taste of blood. Red is the right colour. What my son had ‘remembered’, the vivid images his psyche had reconstructed were so troublingly accurate. Possibly even biographical.

Between 1997 and 1999, an ethno-political conflict erupted in Congo-Brazzaville, mainly located in the capital: Brazzaville, where my ancestry lies. This war was the second bout of political turmoil of the nineties and; a continuation of the civil war of 1993. Both conflicts were linked to attempts at removing president Sassou Nguesso and thus; were at least in part; attempts at freeing the nation from the grasp of neo-colonialism and from ‘Francafrique’.

But…this was not information I had shared with my son. I thought he was too young. Perhaps too, I was not prepared to face the violence of it all or perhaps, my own sense of displacement. And this is information no one had shared with him because of this sacred silence. Yet, it had been transmitted so precisely to him, somehow.

As a Parisian, born and bred, the political situation of Brazzaville had always felt somewhat removed from my day to day lived reality. Triply so. Removed through birth and upbringing. Removed because symbolically my biological father was the only tie which really attached me to Africa. That tie was not very strong because of divorce and almost evaporated when he died. Removed too through further displacement because of my own immigration to the UK.

But Africa, Brazzaville and my father claimed ties with my son. Him who is even more removed than me. A further displaced and obliviously happy British born & bred little boy; at the time.

An estimated twenty five thousand died in the two years of political violence that claimed my father’s life. It’s not clear how many died indirectly from the conflict. Likely many, many more. My father was one of them. He did not die at the hands of military or ‘rebel’ militias or by war artillery; but the war killed him nonetheless.

Partly the stress of it, what he might have witnessed, the conditions he lived under; killed him. Partly the unavailability of medical care as thousands were displaced from their home and flew from the capital into the rainy equatorial forest in their bid to escape death. No doubt thousands eventually met their death there. Often grotesquely butchered. 

A distant cousin died indirectly from the war too. In the forest. A toddler who experienced a slow and painful death amidst the heat and humidity, wasting away no doubt from some preventable and treatable minor ailment; which could not be medically attended to during the conflict. His surviving twin sister became a political migrant in France shortly after. A decade or so after the conflict; she started to have nightmares in which she was seeing blood and smelling blood. And rotting flesh. She would have been not much older than a toddler when her twin brother died. She developed nightmares years after exposure to the trauma of war. Her mind remembered. Even though she could not articulate.

So, there’s lot here to ponder on. And this piece is really to pose some of these questions more than it is to answer them. How did those images got transmitted and got associated with my father’s death so pertinently? Why did they get transmitted? Why to my son? Whose sadness was it he was touching upon? What’s the significance of the poem for me, for my son?  What learning is contained within it; for all of us? I don’t know what my father saw in the weeks or months that preceded his death, but I guess my son’s poem tells us a little bit of how things might have been like for his grandfather. Of the terror and horror he witnessed.

Unlike my cousin who was exposed to the trauma of war albeit as an infant, my son was not. I was not either. Possibly by luck of birth. But at the same time, we all were. And we have all been displaced. 

Currently, very few therapeutic approaches acknowledge historical trauma or the intergenerational transmission of trauma, let alone work with it. It certainly does not feature in DSM conceptualisations of trauma. And again, the argument here is not that it should. Not everything that manifests, and which is distressing is pathological or disorderly. Sometimes what causes distress is necessary and important and needs to be heard. Sometimes it connects us to the experience of those we left behind.

Trauma has no boundaries. Contrary to Eurocentric ideas of bounded individualism, the way that we are impacted upon and shaped by phenomena and experiences which appear ever so distant from us; by time and space remains something of a mystery. But perhaps a mystery worth attending to.

Psychoanalytic scholars; have theorised on the contagion of trauma. Acknowledging this communicable quality and; understanding the experience which distresses is central to limiting its contagion. It is believed. Dissociation; cutting/splitting off and other repressive strategies employed to avoid pain…silences, may increase the likelihood that trauma will become contagious. What we cannot face and what we cannot tolerate, has to express itself somewhere, somehow.

It is interesting then, that it is the communicability of trauma which is believed to reduce contagion (Boulanger, 2016). Allowing both the processing and transformation of trauma into an empathic and integrated understanding.

It’s almost a decade since my son wrote Sadness.

And when I set out to write the current article; it was meant to be about my work in Yarl’s Wood; but there you have it. I have really written about my father. Something just led me to this piece. And so, I listened. On reflection, maybe that’s why I ended up in Yarl’s Wood; supporting and listening to women subjected to the worse kinds of violence mankind is capable of. Women who had also seen the world through red lenses and; struggled to get rid of the smell or taste of blood. Maybe; through them I was bearing witness to my father’s trauma too. Perhaps those who have suffered trauma and; can no longer speak, express themselves through the voices of others. Maybe the dead do speak to us after all. Maybe that’s why trauma won’t leave us alone, until it is spoken. And heard.

Reference:

Boulanger, G. (2016). When Is Vicarious Trauma a Necessary Therapeutic Tool? Psychoanalytic Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pap0000089

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

Trauma Informed Care & people of colour

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it”                

                                         Zora Neale Hurston

There are different kinds of wounds. Not all pain is deemed legitimate. Oppression causes trauma. Amidst the (fairly) obvious, debates around what really constitutes trauma as laid out in criterion A of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM)’s diagnosis for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); are alive and well. Criterion A now requires that an individual has been ‘confronted with: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence’ in order to qualify as having experienced trauma. In contrast with the DSM-IV and previous versions, the DSM-V notably includes sexual violence but not racial violence…troublingly evoking the fight for racial justice.

Looking back in history, (white) women’s rights have always taken precedence over the rights of people of colour. For example, in the US white women were afforded the right to vote in both state and federal elections in 1920 but, it was only in 1954 that people of Asian heritage could vote and; well into the 60s that measures specifically designed to bar African Americans from voting (e.g. voting taxes, literacy tests or intimidation) were rendered unlawful. The recognition of racial violence and injustice historically takes much longer than the recognition of sexual violence. It is important to bear that in mind. With some luck, we may get some intersectional thinking within mainstream mental health systems within 50 years.

Still…many of us continue to exist under the weight of racial (and intersectional) violence and more critically; continue to be affected by smaller, less extreme but repeated traumatic experiences. They rarely involve threat to life or to the integrity of our body but, they nonetheless create threat to livelihood, affect life course and limit life chances. They may not cause us to be confronted with overt violence, all the same, they create unsafeness and insecurity, pain and, a sense of futility and resignation or helplessness. Often too, they lead to internalised silencing or self-censorship due to repeated experiences of denial, invalidation or minimisation.

I am amongst those who believe in speaking of our pain.  As marginalised people when we are silent when violence is done to us, we offer a hiding place to perpetrators and to oppressive systems. Oppression and abuse often create a felt sense of shame. And, shame thrives in silence. This is also how oppressive systems reproduce themselves, they locate the pathology, dysfunction or anomaly within those they harm. We do the master’s work when we internalise these (projective) beliefs. Moreover, when one cannot speak of the violence they experience or have experienced, they are done violence all over again. Silence is violence. Often.

Insidious trauma

There is nothing new in considering oppression as a traumatic agent, nothing new at all. Feminist scholars have long critiqued DSM conceptualisations of trauma. Many have advocated for a theoritical expansion so as to locate the experience of trauma within socio-political contexts. The concept of insiduous trauma is born out of this scholarship. Insidious traumatisation (Root, 1992) is centred on the daily ‘subthreshold’ traumatic stressors marginalised people experience which, when taken cumulatively, amounts to trauma because they are constant reminders of one’s precariousness and unsafeness in the world. Some feminists have sought to include insidious trauma within PTSD criteria or put forward conceptualisations of oppression-related psychiatric disorders.

Understanding insidious traumatisation is vital. Nevertheless, I am not sure that some sort of pathologisation parity is required or would be helpful. Nor that pathologising responses to trauma more generally is desirable. This is not because I uphold a hierarchy of suffering or injustice or, because I think, insidious trauma necessarily produces dissimilar physical or psychological reactions to more ‘classic’ traumatic events or experiences. I am simply not convinced that the legitimisation of the psychological harm of racial violence should be via an extension of the DSM/psychiatric classification systems; systems that are based on alleged ‘deviation’ from unpacked and unproblematised norms (and let’s be real which themselves have a long history of doing violence to marginalised groups and indeed may easily be charged with actively living up to that legacy) when being deemed ‘abnormal’ and treated as such in the world is, by definition, the root cause of insidious trauma.

Trauma Informed Care?

When a traumatic event is extreme or when we are able to identify a specific event, it is easier to see and recognise the need for support and care. When the damage is done covertly or more subtly over months, years or decades or; when it is part of the fabric of society culturally or ideologically, it can be much more difficult to attend to our suffering or to legitimise the need for support; even to ourselves. Such violence becomes the norm and our responses the pathology, our inability to cope. Smaller but repeated acts of denigration, of discrimination, of othering; constant reminders of structural inequalities and injustices do culminate into significant psychological distress. The evidence is there. There is nothing abnormal or deviant in survivors. The deviance lays in the violence.

There has been a global push towards what is often referred to as Trauma Informed Care (TIC). Various definitions of Trauma Informed Approaches (TIA) exist; all have at their core, a will to configure services and/or care around the developmental impact of trauma on all level of human functioning including on the psychological, neurological and on social development. TIA, further; seeks to ensure all social systems understand the impact of trauma on families, groups, communities and other social systems. TIC may be less stigmatising and, there are many benefits to understanding how trauma can affect attachment, worldviews and more generally people’s experience of the world and thus how structures can retraumatise.

I remain cautious though, when it comes to uncritically embracing the approach. I am not sure there is a huge conceptual difference between envisaging people as traumatised rather than as ‘mentally ill’.  For starters, most proponents of the medical model would probably argue that both propositions are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is precisely what has been proposed of late ‘there is something wrong with you… (in your brain, your emotional responses, your personality, your perceptions, your cognitive or relational processes etc…) because of what you have been through’. Thus, saying or implying, you are damaged because of trauma is no more humanising as a narrative, to me, than saying or implying you are damaged because of faulty brain structures.

Both explanatory models locate the disturbance or pathology within the individual.  In other words, you are still saying to me that there is something wrong with me as opposed to, there is something wrong with the way that I have been treated and everything ‘right’ in the way I have responded to try to survive. Further, and more importantly, the main focus remains on ‘treatment’ rather than on prevention, at least not on holding structures of power to account.  I have seen very little of this within TIA. ‘What has happened to you’ is infinitely more compassionate than ‘what is wrong with you’ no doubt, better still is asking ‘what has happened to you’ then, turning to oppressive systems and those with more social power; to ask ‘what are you doing to stop harming people’ or ‘how are you abusing your power’. Much more difficult questions of course but, necessary ones to balance the focus here and not lay our gaze exclusively or even primarily, onto individuals who survived violence or try to survive the harm done onto them but onto those who abuse their power, individuals and systems.

Trauma Informed Care and oppression

Psychiatry and mental health systems do not own distress or trauma. Or how it is defined. Or how it is or should be experienced. Trauma is not patented by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Our experience of the world does not cease to exist simply because a group of white American men at the APA, or dominant systems more generally have decided, the daily violence we suffer is not that traumatic or worthy of a name or of a mention in their (conceptually and empirically flawed) book. Or because mental health systems, by and large, continue to struggle to make themselves relevant to so many of us.

I note that despite the recognition that racism constitutes trauma within most TIA I have come across and, the expressed link between trauma and historical and cultural contexts as one the principles of TIC,  I am still to see a single intervention within the framework specifically addressing the damage of whiteness within any mainstream mental health system in the UK. This, I find quite ironic. Racism reproduced at cultural-symbolic level is a source of trauma too. This invisibilisation or disinterest is consequently quite rich.  There is thus no evidence that TIC would be more relevant and/or more centred on people of colour’s needs or experience. Although the potential that it could is certainly there.

Although I am still ambivalent but open about TIC in relation to people of colour and their experience of oppression particularly, I do believe that we could benefit from using insidious trauma to make sense of our lived experience and to render visible and legitimate, the psychological effects of racial oppression. Although here too, the danger of individualising social trauma by narrowing analytical lenses looms very near indeed, constant efforts are required to avoid this process. Sill, by claiming the term, irrespective of dominant groups or systems’ approval, we are choosing self-definition. We are too, asserting our right and power to define reality. We are choosing to centre our experience of the world and hopefully to orientate ourselves towards self-care. And, to be clear, self-care in my book absolutely entails organising and resisting. History, teaches us that it makes little sense, to seek social approval for our struggles before taking action. Eventually, we tend to be proved right.  TIC and particularly, oppression-focused TIA may well prevent more debilitating manifestations of oppression-related or insidious trauma in people of colour, but the evidence base is simply not there and, I cannot say I have seen a rush for it.

References

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.)

Root M. P. (1992). Reconstructing the impact of trauma on personality. In Brown L. S., Ballou M. (Eds.), Personality and psychopathology: Feminist reappraisals (pp. 229-265). New York: Guilford.

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

 

A support group for women & non-binary people of colour 

I am really excited to be able to offer this new and forming support group which I hope, will become a healing and reflective space for women and non-binary people of colour. Below, you will find all you need to know about the group in a Q&A format.

Why this group?

I have been running self-care workshops for over a year and one piece of feedback I recurrently receive is how very few safe spaces exist where we can be with each other and support one another in the business that is life and existing, as marginalised people. This group is an attempt at facilitating such a space. 

What is the aim of the group? 

The group’s ultimate aim is to support our wellbeing and our increase our capacity to reflect and feel connected. Nonetheless, it has no specific purpose other than being an open space to just be and, as such it will be fairly unstructured. My hope is that it will provide an opportunity to be/feel seen, heard and feel supported by others with shared lived experience.

Who is the group for? 

This group is for women of colour and non-binary people of colour. Those who identify as trans women, are welcome to attend.

When is the group starting?

The group will start to meet in October, either on an evening during a weekday or during the week-end. It is anticipated that the group will meet weekly.

How long will the group meet?

This group is intended to be open, how long attendees use the space for, will be discussed and negotiated with each person concerned, it is likely that those able to attend for 2-3 months will derive the most benefits. 

What is the duration of each meeting? 

Each group meeting will last 1h30.

What is the group format? 

There is no set structure to the group and it will become what we make of it. Nonetheless, the group will meet regularly for a set time (1h30), on a set day (to be confirmed).

Who will facilitate/conduct the group?

I will be facilitating/conducting the group but I hope that the space itself and the presence of others in the group, will be similarly supportive and healing. 

Where will the meetings take place?

These will take place in London Euston at the Marchmont Community Centre which is at 62 Marchmont Street, London WC1N 1AB.

What if I am not sure I can attend every week or I am not sure I am suitable? 

Please contact me and we can have a chat.

Will you continue to deliver your self-care workshops? 

Yes. However, my capacity over the next few months is extremely limited so this support group is likely to be the only regular space I will be holding in the community.

Is there a cost?

Yes. As I need to cover my own costs. However, due to generous donations, I am able to offer each group session at the heavily subsidised fee of £7.50 per attendee. If this proves difficult for you, please contact me. 

Are places limited? 

Yes. Places will be strictly limited to 10 people maximum in any given group. They will be allocated on a first come, first served basis and a waiting list may be held so that when a place becomes available, it may be offered to someone waiting. 

How can I join/find out more? 
                                                                               To manifest your interest please email me with either your Skype ID or a mobile number (bookings.selfcare@gmail.com) so we can arrange a brief chat. You can also contact me on Twitter @Kguilaine.

Thank you.

PLEASE NOTE THIS GROUP IS NOW FULLY BOOKED AND HOLDING A WAITING LIST. IF YOU ARE INTERESTED TO JOIN US WHEN A SPACE BECOMES AVAILABLE PLEASE GET IN TOUCH. 

There is a small possibility that another parallel/different group may start next year, subject to capacity, do get in touch to leave your details if interested, and I will contact you if it materialises. 

Black faces and white workplaces (PART 1)

This post is the summary and write- up of a few Twitter threads I wrote focused on self-care for people of colour working in white institutions. The reflections presented below are based on conversations I have had with people of colour, some of whom have become seriously distressed and quite psychologically unwell in white organisational settings. A few have openly spoken of becoming suicidal. Others have retired on ill health grounds. Some have sought me as a friend or more formally as a therapist to help them make sense of their experience. 

The level of psychological injury and disability people of colour sustain at work because of racism, is still an unknown quantity. Nonetheless, my aim here is not to try and quantify but, using an analytic framework primarily, to attempt to formulate what I am recurrently entrusted with. I have to say though, that I too as a Black woman, am working through this shit. None of us have this completely figured out.

Navigating white spaces

I am starting this piece on three premises. Firstly, that workplaces are a microcosm of society and thus, that every dynamic and process which occur between groups in society will get mirrored within institutions. Secondly, that organisations generally do not want to change and will resist change in various and complex ways, regardless of what they may tell themselves (a Black or Brown body inhabiting a previously all white space is a fundamental change).

The final premise is related to both points above, it is that there is a level of communication, which is unseen and pre-verbal that neither employees of colour nor white employees or structures are adequately equipped (or willing) to unpack. It is likely, often, at this unconscious level of interaction, I would posit, that most race related conflicts between employees of colour and white institutions find their genesis and, that harmful social configurations and inequalities are reproduced.

The unhelpfulness of diversity rhetorics

Black and brown bodies have to navigate a tricky territory when working in white spaces. The associated demands are often trivialised partly because assimilation is the default expectation when it comes to whiteness and partly because white supremacy naturally needs to invisibilise the harm it inflicts upon people of colour to naturalise itself. There is thus a fundamental ambivalence at the core of the diversity agenda.

White institutions may go out of their way to recruit ‘BME candidates’ or to attract ‘difference’, however, once such (racial) difference enters the workplace, if it does at all, the expectation is usually that it must dress itself in whiteness. This rule is as powerfully enforced as it enforced tacitly. It is that very rule that dictates that we must remain silent when subjected to racism, that we must adopt organisational narratives, that we must overlook micro-aggressions and generally that we must keep white people comfortable. When there is no space for you to be, self-erasure becomes the modus operandi. The cognitive and affective efforts required are deemed irrelevant. Sometimes, part of your personal development… The ontological and social consequences rarely, if ever, considered.

There are of course ethical and legal requirements imposed on institutions in relation to equality and race relations, nonetheless, it is a sad fact that the impetus for diversity has created widespread tokenism. What is often sought is window dressing, something many workplaces themselves, having so internalised their own institutional discourses, may be oblivious to.

In this context any indication that an employee of colour may be refusing assimilation by for example, by speaking out or by seeking to address structural inequalities, will challenge the institution and within it fantasies of equality, of cohesion, symbolically, fantasies of symbiotic fusion.  Forcing an institution to face its shadow, usually sets in motion destructive dynamics, triggers a denigrating white Gaze and/or let loose violence and aggression towards the now disowned object.

Control or surveillance measures may become initiated. Institutional marginalisation, ostracisation and/or exclusion may quickly follow. These defensive moves are attempts to distance the collective self from the bad object and maintain a sense of institutional/collective (non-racist)  goodness. The splitting process may then give rise to a complex interplay of projections, introjections, transference and counter-transference mechanisms. On a more individual level, for example, for the employee of colour, specific individuals in the workplace may come to represent abusive figures from their past and/or reproduce known traumatic relational patterns. Someone who was bullied as a child, may come to relate to management or colleagues as they related to those who subjected them to abuse in their personal history. 

The intergenerational context

A faceless, yet unfaceable ‘monster’ composed of an amalgamation of all oppressive experiences/oppressors may come into being in the workplace which may as a result become an intolerable space. Trauma responses such as terror, nightmares, helplessness and powerlessness, sweating and panic…can be elicited in the worker of colour who may struggle to understand the intensity of their reactions. Such responses are rendered more distressing as the intergenerational context becomes embroiled. As institutional patterns echo more distal historical events, historical trauma is likely to become activated.  

This is what Alleyne refers to as the ‘internal oppressor’ which she defines as ‘memory imprints from the legacy of a painful historical past… marked, and re-opened with the occurrence of oppressive workplace practices’. In essence the ‘internal oppressor’ means that painful historical memories such as apartheid, colonialism, slavery gain cognitive salience increasing distress in the present and according to Alleyne, constellating into a post-traumatic ‘syndrome’. 

Whilst most theorists and thinkers interested in historical trauma have focused on the intergenerational archetypes triggering distress in people of colour, the limited attention paid to the impact of the intergenerational context on white people’s psyches and functioning fails to address the intersubjective nature of trauma and more generally, of all unconscious processes. 

There is no doubt in my mind that racial trauma is the response to racial persecution and that both relational processes exist co-dependently.  Wether at conscious or unconscious level. The employee of colour who is experiencing suicidal feelings or thoughts for example, probably does so because the work group they found themselves in, wishes to disappear them, and that projection is identified with. The experience is co-created. 

Intersubjectivity and the social unconscious  

Foulkes is credited with introducing the concept of the Social Unconscious which he used to highlight the internalised social world that people are unaware of and, its properties. His thinking led to two main schools of thoughts in relation to the social unconscious. The first qualifies the social uncounscious as automatic memories and sees it as triggered in us outside of our awareness. The second view, arguably more radical,  proposes that the social unconscious is part of our personal matrix, that it thus a structure of the psyche.

The social uncounscious offers a enlightening framework to make sense of racial conflicts in organisational settings particularly, the intersubjective dimension of intergenerational trauma. When people of colour re-experience the past and intergenerational wounds, it is not only because white people or white institutions come to represent figures or events from the past, I posit that it is because they embody them and to a large extend, become them. 

In other words, we create, fix and respond to each other, intersubjectively according to collective and historical configurations we share as member of a particular social system. Our group matrices contain these historical patterns of relational configurations and communications which are more likely to become embodied and reproduced under certain circumstances. Namely, I propose when those whose body do not belong, dare challenging power structures. 

The issues here are consequently not simply representational. In the same sense that Black and Brown bodies may experience terror and behave as though the historical traumatic agent was re-occurring, employers embody persecution and often sadism, by behaving as though they once again were colonial persecutory powers. Unconsciously. Sadistic tendencies/instincts can be awaken in those with power because they too may carry the historical blueprint of racial violence. 

The exclusion, the harsh discipline, the ostracisation…are not simply symbols, they are real acts of violence which have such deep historical resonance, it seems absurd not deconstruct them in that light. It is no coincidence that when challenged, institutions’s default setting is to revert to reproducing violent archetypes evoking collective memories, images, myths and fears for which people of colour came to be known for and constructed as, under imperialism. ‘Management’ strategies align perfectly when taking historical lenses, though contemporarily, they often appear disproportionate, knee-jerked and irrational. The intensity of the reactions here too, betrays the depth of the phenomenon. 

And so of course, it is no coincidence that those people who belong to groups who have been at the receiving end of white terror historically, respond in kind. It is this reciprocity, this interplay of uncounscious defenses (and offenses) which seem to me to be pointing in the direction of the social uncounscious, that highlights both shared integenerational material at polar ends of the same trauma.

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

Culturally Biased Therapy? (Part 2) Injustice and depression

In a previous article problematising Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) from a racialised perspective, I proposed that the epistemic assumptions underlying the model were capable, at group level, of subjecting people of colour (POC) to violence in part, by reproducing discourses of inferiorisation which help maintain the status-quo and thus, white supremacy.  In the present piece, I wish to continue to reflect on such assumptions focusing in particular on the conceptualisation of depression and its implications for people whose existence is plagued by inequality and injustice. I will draw in part, from my lived experience and posit that the invisibilisation of injustice or the pathologisation of injustice related wounds or responses, are further acts of violence which again disproportionately affect people of colour and reproduce social hierarchies.

Mental health inequalities                                                                   

Racial inequalities within mental health services need little introduction. They have been the subject of hundreds of studies over decades which have consistently found that Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, as a group, are more likely to be diagnosed with ‘mental health problems’ and are more likely to be admitted to psychiatric hospitals. Further, such groups are more likely to experience poor outcomes from ‘treatment’ and are similarly more likely to be ‘treated’ coercively. More to the point here, we also know that people of colour are more likely to disengage from mainstream mental health services and to find them irrelevant or inappropriate. This state of affair is undoubtedly the interplay of various factors, including structural racism. And, in particular, mainstream mental health services’ continuing difficulties in providing support that is acceptable and accessible to racialised ‘minorities’.

The picture for depression is less clear. The depression of people of colour is arguably still both poorly understood and poorly recognised by health professionals. Yet, economic and social factors and the increased occurrence of adverse life events and trauma in this group likely increases the incidence of depression. There are on-going concerns over the lack of statutory support for some racialised groups when they experience depression or low mood. The dominance of bio-medical frameworks and their associated individualistic interventions often fail to translate into service uptake for people of colour. Part of this disconnect, I believe, is epistemic and so we must return to the assumptions related to the nature and origins of wellbeing and of psychological distress of mainstream/dominant models, namely here, CBT.

 A cognitive model of depression

Beck’s cognitive theory remains one of the most influential when it comes to formulating depression. The model is composed of three elements as represented in figure a).  The diagram proposes that a person’s belief system when they experience depression, is underscored by a cycle of negative view of the self, negative view of world and negative view of the future. Each component of the model is posited to interact with and to strengthen the others so that attributions of events, for example, are believed to originate from dysfunctional beliefs about the self, the world, and the future and in turn, negative beliefs about the future maintain negative feelings about the self and the world. The cycle is believed to be fed by dysfunctional thoughts and behaviours which ultimately maintain depression.

Many have clearly found the model useful to make sense of depression. I’ve always struggled. Firstly because, of the assumption of irrationality or dysfunction rather than adaption. Further, the triad, is too removed from contextual factors which may provide the fuel, if not be the genesis for the triad, rendering it both highly individualistic and pathologising in its emphasis. And more critically, I think there is something quite perverse which is done; in the name of therapy; to marginalised groups when the violence they experience in the world is invisibilised by people who at the very least, may be charged with benefitting from the said violence.

The impact Injustice

I have been doing equality and justice focused work for the past fifteen years or so. Fifteen years. That’s a long time for someone still in their thirties. About half my life…If I take into account my lived experience; I have been doing this stuff for most of my life. There is no single part of my existence that has been untouched by injustice, one way or the other. As a child, I remember being very upset by unfairness. Almost at soul level. I was an unusually observant child. I cried many tears over things most children do not concern themselves with, most were equality related. And there was much to cry about for a child attuned to the world around her. I understood injustice left marks. I could see it on the slumped shoulders and almost vacant gaze of neighbours in the cité. One of the psychological costs of exclusion. It was in the way they walked and moved too, as though lifeless. I could see it in the eyes of my parents as they fought low expectations and navigated racialised xenophobia. They did not need to name it. 

I have recognised this embodiment clinically, this imprint on the soul. It is unmissable to the trained eye. To the sensatised body…It led me to the conclusion that the need for justice may well be anchored deeply within us. Social determinants of heath are getting increased recognition in relation to mental health inequalities. And while their distributions among different groups are known to affect health outcomes, there’s been little theorisation as to how they inflict harm psychologically.  Injustice appears to me to be a unifying factor. I would suggest that it is through our lived experience of injustice that most social determinants are mediated internally, that they take hold and lodge themselves within us. I do not think it is coincidental that the experiences that most accurately predict psychological distress such as bullying, discrimination, sexual abuse, poverty even bereavement seem to all involve a breached sense of justice.

This breach of the principle or expectation of justice in the world seems therefore to be something that profoundly distresses us. It is capable of transforming us and our outlook on life. Reflecting upon my own clinical work, I do not believe that I have ever met a single person in distress who was not struggling with injustice. One way of the other. From the persecuted asylum seeker who feels god’s fury has turned onto them despite them devoting their entire life to religion, to the child who cannot comprehend why they are the one being picked on at school or who was born ‘different’. From the parents struggling to say goodbye to a dying child to those have been laid off because of ageism or sexism. From those whose historical trauma is constantly reproduced in the oppression they experience at work, to those whose body was objectified in the most degrading ways. Injustice automatises us. Injustice despairs us. Injustice wounds us. Deeply.

Injustice and depression

I was once told in a CBT class that seeking justice was pathological. That ‘demanding fairness’ was considered dysfunctional within CBT. I know many therapists believe this. But still…Imagine hearing this as a matter of fact, from a white man when your body is black and female. Just let this sink in. So I just want to say that as a black woman, the dysfunction to me, lays in adjusting and adapting to injustice and socialising the people who have suffered unspeakably at its hands into accepting it. The dysfunction is telling marginalised bodies that it is healthy, mature and desirable not to ‘demand’ justice while reaping the benefits of such manufactured powerlessness and apathy. I want to propose that maybe, just maybe, the dysfunction resides in the invisibilisation of the impact of injustice.

Let me also suggest that perhaps it is not pathological to be destabilised and affected by injustice in the world but that it is beautifully human and, that each time we socialise ourselves into accepting injustice we cut ourselves off from parts of our humanity, we normalise social inequality, we add an additional layer of protection to an already solid status-quo. Have you never wondered why children learn to say ‘it’s not fair’ and to comprehend injustice before they can say or grasp much else in the world? Perhaps this tells us something about us as human beings. Perhaps this is why people tend to experience distress or mourn or occupy space differently when they’ve been hit by injustice. And because some of us find ourselves at the intersection of various axes of oppression, we get hit more often. More deeply. More systematically. Our resources to remain unharmed, constantly tested. Sometimes they give. 

Injustice model of depression 

                                                

Those reflections led me to the above model (figure b). The injustice model naturally starts with and focus on the impact of injustice. It proposes that injustice leads a transformed a) sense of safety b) sense of security about the future and that both those components are mediated by an increased sense of ontological insecurity. By ontological insecurity here, I simply mean living in an embodied condition of fear, or dread, of threatening uncertainty in relation to one’s being in the world. Being able to maintain a sense of justice is central to our ontological equilibrium as human beings. It makes us feel secure both in the world and with others. It helps us trust ourselves and thus, trust others. It allows us to make predictions about the future. To have agency. Injustice shakes all of this. It is not therefore surprising that feelings of melancholia, of dread and helplessness can be triggered by injustice.

To conclude, there is nothing within people of colour’s cognitions or within marginalised bodies more broadly, that render us inherently pessimistic, prone to ‘dysfunctional beliefs’ and thus more likely to experience depression or ‘mental health problems’.  This is implied when intrapsychic formulations focus on some purported dysfunctions in the evaluation of the world at the expense of the harm which is done onto people. As though we were all gifted the same world.  The injustices we face also exist outside of our cognitions, at least in my worldview. They are material. They are sustained, for too many of us they are structural.

And, when injustice is done onto us and we recognise it as such, our self-image often shifts, our relationship with the world and with ourselves are often hit. Our sense of  belonging and being in the world can become shaky. This is more than a matter of  ‘viewing’ the world differently. This is not a matter of glasses being half full or half empty. I frankly find that this suggestion smacks of unpacked privilege. And arrogance. Our world is transformed by injustice. We are transformed too, possibly even epigenetically. 

It took me a while to try and articulate my reflections on the subject. When knowledge is embodied it can be difficult to translate it into words and to share it with the world, in way that speaks to others. Or perhaps this is my anxiety. So this is that first attempt. I ran a poll on Twitter earlier in the month, asking POC who had experienced low mood, which model (between the cognitive model and the injustice model) they felt best captured their experience and as the results below suggest, my lived experience seems to have resonated. The only validation I needed. And so, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that the model has the potential to help engage those who have traditionally felt alienated. Those who have felt invisibilised by mainstream therapy models. I believe this is how we start to heal. By being seen. 

I welcome feedback. 

Twitter poll results



Thank you for reading.
 

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White women’s innocence, oppression and a can of Pepsi

Capitalism and white saviourism

Kendall jenner, the new face of white saviourism according to Pepsi, has faced global criticisms over the brand’s recently released (and recently cancelled) new advert. In the commercial, the young woman is seen handing a peace inducing can of Pepsi to a police officer during a protest troublingly evoking police brutality and more sinisterly, police brutality against black bodies. Actually, it may be more accurate to write that it is Pepsi which, by and large, has faced the backlash. Messages of support and words in defence of the reality TV star’s innocence are readily available.

Pepsi who was quick to respond to the negative feedback, accepted it had ‘missed the mark’and pulled the plug on the commercial hours after it was released. In a rather neoliberal move though, the corporation went on to include Kendall in its public apology. That is to say, the brand issued an apology to both those offended if not distressed by this output, and the person who delivered the output, or the final blow. The hurt feelings of the person who was the vehicle literally, for the whole fiasco were coddled. Imagine. An apology directed at both the accomplices of a ‘crime’ and its victims. Some apology indeed.

This PR disaster is a perfect opportunity to stop and think, for a few moments, about the continued social construction of white womanhood and its role in the oppression of both people of colour and, of women of colour. A social construction Pepsi thought it could capitalise on without consequences. On the back of black pain. On the back too, of all those who have suffered violence and death at the hands of the state.

To be fair, I have had an earlier opportunity to consider these issues when I was asked on national television whether I could empathise with Rachel Dolezal’s position or claim to Blackness since she reportedly has experienced abuse and neglect as a child.  So I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on white womanhood and the impact it has had on my life. I came to this conclusion. I am scared of white women. There, I said it. I am scared of white women. I am not scared of white women for I believe they are monsters or necessarily more dangerous or violent than any other group of women or human beings. I don’t believe so.

I am scared of white women as a group, for what they can do to me and get away with. I am scared of what society allows white women to do to black women and to other women of colour without ever being held to account. Without losing an ounce of that socially presumed innocence, or suffer any dent in the credibility of their sisterhood claims. And in truth, I’m scared because in this white patriarchal society, it is white women who have inflicted the most harm onto me. 

The unspeakable harm

As a feminist I can’t tell you how difficult this is to write. But nonetheless, this is the truth. A truth I am not expected to speak of. But white women have done harm to me. Serious harm. Probably more harm than all the men I have come across in my life. White men and men of colour combined. In my adult life. Whenever I reflect on the times I have experienced racism and discrimination related distress, it is the faces of white women I repeatedly see. Soft speaking and smart looking white women. Smiling. 

When I contemplated writing this piece, I  thought twice. In truth, I thought more than a few times. I was afraid. In fact, I still am a little. I know all too well the potential for my words to be twisted and convoluted so that they can tell the same old stories of that angry black woman with a chip on her shoulder, of reverse racism, of white women persecution. I know that if any white woman was to shed a single tear over these words, I could face structural violence or accusations of violence. Ironically. I know that some will invariably attempt to weaponise this reality, a reality which is not even only mine alone, and try to turn it against me looking for pathology or deficiency. But I am writing. And today, I am smiling.  Knowing fair well, no amount of sobbing from me and/or my Black sisters would ever get us the compassion I am asked to show or shift the gaze onto those who do us violence.

I chose to speak. I have an equal right to. I am tired of being asked to show kindness to those intent on not seing the harm they inflict onto me and others who look like me. I think I am getting too old for this. I have my own self-care to do.  I do not exist to serve the egos of violent white women or to protect their presumed innocence or claims to benevolence at the cost of my own sanity, because society will not recognise violence if it not obvious, male or gun/knife wielding. It is not in my interest to pretend I do not see the expectations of self-sacrifice here. They always find their way into my life… But I will not reproduce the very social hierachies which do violence to so many.

After the Pepsi scandal, Kendall relatives wanted us to know, ‘she  would have been absolutely mortified about the backlash anything offensive is just not her’ and that, ‘she means well, always’. And I have no doubt by the time I post this, liberals of all creeds will ask me to consider wether the harm white women inflict finds its source in patriarchy. Wether Jenner was used. Wether it is fair or intelligent even, to hold white women to account given they also suffer oppression and exploitation within these very social systems and, perhaps wether my words might cause me lose ‘allies’ and support when there’s so little of these around.  

All while the Jenners and Dolezals of this world sponge off Black pain and trauma maintaining that lucrative proximity to Blackness so many of us feel flattered by. So often dating or fantasising on Black men whilst treating black women with absolute contempt. Claiming benevolence whilst being unable to take responsibility for or reflect on any hurt occasioned since they are so clearly above racism. So no. I don’t need support and allyship that are contingent upon my silence. I don’t need a pat on the back in exchange for my empathy. Nor do I need my intelligence confirmed. I need for white women to quit weaponising innocence, their gift from white patriarchy, to navigate capitalism or to avoid accountability. Ultimately, I need for white women to stop being oppressive. That is what I need. So, it is what I am asking.

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.